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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 08:48 GMT
Tourists flock to Ground Zero site
Ground zero at night
Recovery work continues round the clock
By BBC News Online's Tim Weber in New York

Nearly three months on, the smell is still there.

Sometimes it is vaguely sweet, like autumnal garden fires. But most of the time it is an acrid stench of burning plastic, wafting over the tourists as they approach "ground zero", where the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.

There is a perimeter fence all around the disaster site - tall and shrouded metal fencing, set up behind wooden "Police line - do not cross" barriers.

But as the smell fades, the spectators are getting closer.

Firefighters on rubble
Millions of tonnes of rubble still need to be removed
Not long ago, the fence kept the public several blocks away. Now this ultimate frontier in disaster tourism is just a few hundred metres from ground zero.

And wherever the grid of Manhattan streets affords a clear view of the World Trade Center ruins, throngs of tourists crowd around the barriers.

All that remains

To get a better view, people clamber on lamp posts, garbage bins and bollards.

Even up there, they do not see much. Under the glare of huge arc lights, tips of cranes and diggers can be seen moving around.

Were it not for the stench, and for the memory of the silvery towers soaring skyward until a few months ago, it could be any well-protected construction site.

But as the tourists wander along the fence, the illusion soon disappears.

Easily outnumbering the people in uniform are the street hawkers, selling patriotic trinkets and World Trade Center memorabilia

Approaching from the north, along Greenwich Street, the sightseers are suddenly confronted with the hulking, burnt-out remains of World Trade Center 7 - one of the smaller towers, brought down by a fierce blaze well after the two main towers collapsed.

Still 10 or 12 storeys high, the blackened outlines of what once were offices can be made out in the structure.

Most visitors seem to believe that they are looking at one of the twin towers, but are soon corrected.

Patient New Yorkers, taking their visiting friends and family to the site, explain what is where and point to what remains of the twin towers - one tall silvery skeleton of metal, once part of the honeycomb structure of their walls.

But much of the debris from the towers has gone, put on trucks and shipped to a dump on Staten Island.

No place for laughter

A walk around the perimeter fence can be surreal. At times it feels like a tourist fair.

Twin Towers structures in smoke
Only a skeleton of the Twin Towers remains

A few metres on, it has the character of a pilgrimage. And not much further, the trappings of a political demonstration.

Wherever the disaster site is visible, mourners have attached flowers, cards and posters to the fencing.

There are teddy bears with notes to lost loved-ones. Messages of comfort, solidarity and defiance.

And US flags, hundreds of flags.

"Infidels are welcome here," shouts one poster.

On a banner a South Carolina high school declares its solidarity with New York. And there are numerous leaflets - all similar, but not identical - showing a picture, a name, and the words "missing since September 11".

Some tourists gawk and jostle for the best position to take a picture, ignoring the signs asking them not to use video cameras and not to take pictures of the rescue workers.

But faced with the reminders of death, most tourists are quiet, and unusually polite.

There is no laughter here. Many people pray and contemplate.

Occasionally a few dust-covered rescue workers emerge from behind the fences, respirator masks dangling from their necks.

A smattering of applause from the spectators, which quickly dies away.

Keeping an eye on the situation are hundreds of uniformed men and women - NYPD police officers, men from the fire department, state troopers and soldiers from the National Guard.

The disaster business

Easily outnumbering the people in uniform are the street hawkers, selling patriotic trinkets and World Trade Center memorabilia.

Diggers in rubble
The recovery work will continue into the New Year
There are hurriedly produced booklets: "World Trade Center 1973- 2001". Posters of the twin towers. T-Shirts showing US fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and soldiers, with the caption: "Justice will be done".

And endless variations of the stars and stripes - small lapel pins in the shape of a heart, an apple or a flag.

And all across town they sell baseball caps with the insignia of the heroes of the disaster, the New York Police Department and the city's firefighters.

'Imagine all the people...'

A few kilometres north of ground zero, yet more people are mourning.

They have piled high flowers, lit candles and posted messages of love and remembrance.

Some are looking forlorn, others take pictures.

It is a corner of Central Park called Strawberry Fields, named after the Beatles song and now New York's focus for the commemoration of George Harrison.

There is a plaque dedicating the site to John Lennon, with a quote from one of his songs: "Imagine all the people living life in peace..."

Underneath that quote is a list of all the world's countries.

Afghanistan is first on the list.

See also:

27 Nov 01 | Business
Lloyd's terror losses rise to 1.9bn
21 Nov 01 | Americas
NY attacks 'killed less than 4,000'
10 Nov 01 | Americas
Residents move away from Ground Zero
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